‘RIF’ by Donald Barthelme

I still love the way that Barthelme’s stories played with form and expectation, and with the texture and appearance of the story on the page, colliding different kinds of language and illustrational forms within a single story. ‘RIF’ is a great example of Barthelme’s signature ‘dash-dialogue’ stories. These are improvisations, punctuated (as Barthelme scholar Jerome Klinkowitz puts it) in ‘The European style’, with each new line hanging on an M-dash, sansquote marks. The punning ‘RIF’ of this story’s title is a ‘reduction in force’, a workplace restructuring, and Rhoda is in line ‘to be riffed’, that is to be made redundant. I gather that Barthelme wrote these ‘dash-dialogue’ stories precisely because they could be improvised and thus were quick to write. In ‘RIF’, the back and forth conversation between Hettie and Rhoda is by turns whimsical and absurdist: there are sentimental reminiscences about pay-rises, and talk of a former partner being discarded ‘like an old spreadsheet.’ This is a good story to give to a short story class or workshop, because you can get a couple of volunteers to perform it aloud: one can be Hettie, the other Rhoda. They will discover quite quickly that there is a proofing glitch (at least there is in my 1988 Secker and Warburg hardback, but I wonder if this error has dogged the story its whole life). Two utterances on the second page are elided, which means that at a certain point Hettie becomes Rhoda, and vice versa.

First published in Forty Stories, 1987, first UK edition Secker and Warburg, 1988

‘Engineer-private Paul Klee Misplaces an Aircraft Between Milbertshofen and Cambrai, March 1916’ by Donald Barthelme

The One You Don’t Want to Share with Anyone:

It’s not just this Donald Barthelme story that I don’t want to share with anyone – it’s allof them. I actually get upset, and jealous, and angry when other people talk about how much one of Barthelme’s stories mean to them. Because, really, how could they know? They weren’t there. 

Yes, Barthelme’s stories can be so playful – with their insistence on deconstructing structure and style and technique and everything else – that sometimes they topple over into glibness. They can come off cold. A lot of them were first published in ‘The New Yorker’, after all. They’re never completely silly, though. Never daft for the sake of it (which is what a lot of his imitators miss). There’s always a logic there.

And when there’s a heart, when Barthelme’s games accidentally uncover a moment of resonating, delicate emotional depth, almost in spite of himself, it’s lovely.

And so it is with this story of the painter Paul Klee, observed by omniscient the secret police, who comes up with an artistic solution to the loss of a plane.

To my surprise and dismay, I notice that one of them is missing. There had been three, tied down on the flatcar and covered with canvas. Now I see with my trained painter’s eye that instead of three canvas-covered shapes on the flatcar there are only two.

But what I’m saying iseven if, after reading this story, or all the ninety-nine other stories spread across this collection and its companion ‘Sixty Stories’, even if you think you get Donald Barthelme, trust me, you don’t. Because he’s mine.

(First published in The New Yorker​, 1971. Collected in Forty Stories, 1987. Available to read online here)

‘The Balloon’ by Donald Barthelme

I first read this printed on the bible paper of Volume E of the Norton Anthology of American Literature. It was the first year of my English degree, and I was too tight and too skint to buy my own. Luckily, a flatmate in my halls of residence jacked in the course after the first week. She left her full complement of Nortons stacked on our kitchen table, with a note instructing me to “take these – or burn them, whatever”. Anyway, I’m not one for memorising anything but, I think if challenged I might be able to recite whole swathes of this off-book. Every time I read it, I get the distinct impression that these lines have been running in my head all the while.

First published in The New Yorker in 1961. Collected in Sixty Stories, 1984, and The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume E, Norton, 2002

‘The Balloon’, by Donald Barthelme

A giant balloon appears in New York, inflated by our narrator, stretching from 14th Street to Central Park, although the narrator “cannot tell us the exact location” of its beginning point. A “spontaneous autobiographical disclosure”. I love the reactions to the balloon, the mixed reviews it gets in the press, the way that the people of New York begin to locate themselves in relation to it, how the lack of advertising seems perplexing.

I remember when I was reading this for the first time there were rumours that Coca-Cola were planning to project their logo on the moon for Y2K, a project ultimately scrapped because the lasers would need to be strong enough to “cut planes in half” for it to work. Somehow, that seemed perfectly logical to me, as though of course a brand would project itself on the moon. The balloon, however, has no visible purpose, and is all the more confounding to the story’s characters because of it.

First published in The New Yorker, April 1966, collected in Sixty Stories, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1981. Can be read online here

‘Chablis’ by Donald Barthelme

In the summer of 1993, when I was 18, I stayed in a timeshare apartment in Lanzarote with some friends. The apartment had cable TV, which none of us had back in England, so for hours each day we sat around watching MTV Europe, curtains closed against the permanent sun as our hangovers ebbed.

We heard a handful of songs a host of times: ‘Numb’ by U2, ‘Plush’ by Stone Temple Pilots and Soul Asylum’s ’Runaway Train’ were all in heavy rotation, but it wasn’t the music that made a lasting impression. In 1991 MTV made a series of public information broadcasts called Books: Feed Your Head, designed to get teenagers reading. Two years later, these short films had either only just made it onto MTV Europe or were still playing. Either way, they changed my life. Sherilyn Fenn reading a passage from Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus was fine, as was Aidan Quinn hamming up Kafka’s Metamorphosis, but the one that really sunk its hooks into me was Timothy Hutton, standing at a barbecue in a hot, windy yard perched above a freeway, performing what I later found out was the opening paragraph of a story called ‘Chablis’ by someone called Donald Barthelme.

The extract struck me as being perfect: characterful, unexpected, and honed with the precision of a really fine piece of comedy (watching it again I don’t enjoy Hutton’s delivery as much; I remember it being more deadpan). As soon as I got home I tracked down 40 Stories, found ‘Chablis’ right at the front of it, and started a love affair with Barthelme’s work that continues to this day (although ‘Chablis’, it’s worth noting, is something of a realist outlier for him). To be honest, falling in love with Donald Barthleme probably set my writing back a few years, because there is nothing so disastrous as a bad version of his writing, and any attempt to emulate his writing is bad, or at least inferior.  You can see George Saunders struggling with this influence – far better than most, but still struggling – in his first collection, Civilwarland in Bad Decline.

That same summer of 1993, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son was published in the UK, a book that quickly became my other pole star and which also led me down many treacherous and frustrating paths as a writer. Almost any of the stories in Jesus’ Son could fill both of the old and new halves of this list, because they have lived with me for 25 years but I also re-read the collection so often, and each time find so much in it, that the stories can feel like new discoveries, too.

In his 1981 Paris Review ‘Art of Fiction’ interview, Barthelme was asked about his influences. “They come in assorted pairs”, he said: “Perelman and Hemingway. Kierkegaard and Sabatini. Kafka and Kleist. Kleist was clearly one of Kafka’s fathers”. Robert Musil, when he first read Kafka, described him as “a peculiar case of the Walser type”. Which brings us to…

From 40 Stories, Penguin 1989, first published in the New Yorker December 1983. Hear Etgar Keret read and discuss the story here, and see the MTV short film here

‘King of Jazz’ by Donald Barthelme

King of short stories. As a recovering trombonist, I can hardly fail to be moved by the opening sentence: “Well I’m the king of jazz now, thought Hokie Mokie to himself as he oiled the slide on his trombone.” Sold! What follows is a riotous send-up of the endless “cutting contests” by which old-time jazzers, men to a man, fought their way to the top. Is there more to this story than the virtuosic language-games which Barthelme played almost better than anybody else? The answer lies in a strange paragraph which marks the turn of the tale. Here Barthelme, admittedly while describing Hokie’s solo on a tune called “Cream”, changes tack and embarks on a rapturous long list of improbably beautiful real and imagined sounds: “like an oyster fungus growing on an aspen trunk” for example. Which elicits the comment “That was the dadblangedest thing I ever saw!”

(1977; now in Sixty Stories, Penguin. Online here